For those who have never taken a ride on a steam launch, or never seen a steam boat in operation, we offer here some basic information that may be helpful.
What do they burn?
Steam launches can burn just about any fuel. Firewood is often free and the traditional choice of fuel. Coal is not expensive and takes up less room in the boat. Proper grates are needed to burn coal successfully. Possibly 90% of steam launches burn one of these two fuels. A small number of boats may burn diesel but that can be noisy. Other boats may be fueled with propane or kerosene. The choice is up to the owner.
What do they cost?
The cost of a steamboat depends mostly on the owner. Is he handy with tools and does he have the time to do much of the work? I have seen boats assembled for less than $3,000. There are steam launches that may sell used for well in excess of $60,000. Ads for used launches and trailer generally fall in the range of $9,000 to $25,000.
How fast can they go?
Steam launches are displacement hulls that move through the water, not planing on top of the water. Therefore, they cannot go fast. Owners will claim fantastic speeds for their boat, but in reality most of the boats go the same speed. Top end may be 6 or 7 miles per hour, however, the most comfortable speed to operate a launch is 4 or 5 mph. Slow is a way of life.
Do I need a license to operate a steam boat?
You do not need a license to operate a boiler in a hobby boat under 40 feet in length. States may have laws concerning education of boat operators that apply to any boat, having nothing to do with steam.
Should I build or buy my first steam launch?
Only the prospective new owner can answer this. Those who are comfortable with welding and plumbing can often build their own boiler. If you own a lathe and a Bridgeport go ahead and build your own steam engine and pumps. Those who have built boat hulls in the past, sure, build your own hull. Many steam boaters may build one component and buy or trade for the others. Some just buy a "turnkey" used boat and others will order up a new steamboat.
If you build it all yourself on average it may take two to five years to get on the water and operational. Ordering a new boat from a commercial builder may take six months to two years or more as their backlog is unpredictable. Be sure to attend a steam meet and get a few rides on various boats. Experience is a wonderful thing.
How can I learn about operating a boiler or a marine steam engine?
Some folks go through a lot of trial and error. Others may have a friend help them along at first go. Click on the "For Sale" tab to learn about Hands on the Throttle.
Is there a steam boat club or organization?
Well... yes and no. In the U.S. there are a couple of small publications that cater to steam boaters. SMOKESTACK is based on the east coast and STEAMBOATING Magazine is based in the northwest. 3000 miles separate the two groups of steam launch owners. Steam boaters are very independent characters and it is not a group that wants to get too organized. A loose confederation best describes these folks, but somehow they come together during the warm months for steam meets at various locations. Visitors and new boat owners or wannabes are always welcomed. But please, don't try to organize us.
How far can you travel in a steam launch?
This is one of those questions that has more than one answer. Generally, it will depend on the fuel being used, the size of the hull, and how intrepid the captain may be. Firewood consumes lots of storage space so that a small hull (12 - 16 feet) may not be able to carry fuel for more than six hours of steady steaming, but that would be 24 miles or more.
Large hulls naturally have more storage capacity. I once loaded 750 lbs. of coal into a 23 Elliott Bay hull for a two week journey. (not recommended) Those burning liquid fuel can store many gallons on board. Some steam boaters have found that a chain saw is all that is needed to cruise indefinitely if the shoreline is wooded or the beach full of drift wood.
Questions about the hobby of steamboating can be emailed using the "contact us" button.